Because of my vocal issues, this episode is split between podcast and blog form.
I describe my first ‘official’ meeting with my primary Dunari guide, Shinytop.
Segment two examines the importance of guides in world building.
The ‘Strange but True’ segment explains how the death penalty was abolished in the City of Bones.
An introduction to Shinytop.
How to use guides to build your world.
Each show will be summarized in letter form. These are the letters I would have written from Dunari to my parents if I’d been able to do so at the time.
Thirteen minutes reading time.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I hope you are well. What’s the weather like in Dublin?
I haven’t a clue what it’s like here because I still can’t see through the window.
Things are improving.
When I awoke this morning—my fourth day here—the window was brighter. And I saw shapes beyond it. Indistinct things. Outlines. It reminded me of when I’d draw something in my sketchbook, and this would leave the faintest outline on the page beneath.
It gave me hope, though, that I might feel sunlight on my face again.
Ganhook turned up shortly afterwards.
He told me that he’d ‘discovered’ Shinytop in an abandoned fortress deep in the Algoth Mountains. The ‘spirit in a stick’ claimed he’d been a thief in Verigra, a city far west of the Algoth. He couldn’t remember why he’d been abandoned. Nor could he remember what he’d done before becoming a thief.
Ganhook then performed the ‘ceremony’, muttered something about important business, and left.
That’s when I tried the magic words, and got scolded by a stick for being foolish.
Once all that was out of the way, I said, ‘Well, at least you’re talking to me now.’
‘I was the finest thief in the western lands,’ Shinytop said. ‘I have treasure hidden in Verigra. This treasure is yours if you help me to escape this dreadful stick and become alive again.’
I’ll admit, this was the absolutely last thing I’d expected to hear. It was also a wonderful thing to hear. While I would love a bit of treasure to bring home, I figured that if I helped Shinytop, he’d help me get home.
Of course, I’d no idea how to help him. If Ganhook couldn’t release him, how on Earth would I?
I picked up Shinytop. The staff was light, like driftwood. If I brought this home, I’d have the coolest gadget thing in history.
‘I will help you,’ I replied. ‘If you will help me get home.’
‘Absolutely . . . not!’ Shinytop said.
His reply numbed me. And angered me. So, he wanted my help, but wouldn’t help me. The cheek of it.
‘I cannot help you go home,’ Shinytop added. ‘But I can help you survive long enough to go home someday.’
He went on to say that even if I made it to the gateway, Takrek, the gateway keeper would kill me.
It occurred to me that he could change his mind if I told him there was technology in our world that could release him.
But I didn’t want to lie.
By refusing to help me, he’d been honest.
Sometimes it was hard to hear the truth. Yet, I respected it.
Despite this, I was still angry. He was supposed to be my guide. Instead, he was putting himself foremost in my mind. I felt cheated.
‘You’re supposed to be my guide,’ I said, ‘Guide me somewhere. I’ll go crazy if I don’t get out of this room.’
‘Now you know how I feel,’ Shinytop said. ‘This is a good start between us. We understand each other.’
I asked what was outside room zero.
‘Corridor,’ he replied.
‘What’s outside the fortress?’
‘What city?’ I asked, my anger rising. The urge to crack the stick off the wall became insatiable.
‘A city with people,’ Shinytop replied. ‘And other things.’
Exasperated, I stared straight into Shinytop’s laughable, painted on eyes, and hissed, ‘Give me a straight answer. Or I’ll . . .’
‘Ask me the right question, and you’ll get a straight answer.’
‘What’s the right question?’
As if to annoy me further, he paused for a long time, before saying, ‘Ask me what my greatest ambition is?’
While it was obvious his greatest ambition was to escape the staff, I said, ‘What is your greatest ambition?’
‘To come alive again.’
‘Oh,’ I said, using my most sarcastic voice.
‘A second great question would be to ask what my second greatest ambition is.’
‘Ok. Fine What is your second greatest ambitions?’
‘To step into someone else’s fart,’ Shinytop replied. ‘That’s when I’ll ‘know’ I’m alive again.’
All the anger drained out of me. I laughed. That was something that would certainly remind you you were alive. After so many years in the staff, it would have been like stepping into perfume.
‘Tell me about your world,’ Shinytop said.
‘No,’ I replied. I was getting fed up of Shinytop manipulating our conversation to get what he wanted. ‘You’re supposed to tell me about this world.’
‘I was a thief. The best. I’d steal the breath from your lungs without you noticing. Before I was a thief, I don’t remember what I was. They say I wandered out of the western wildlands, with no memory of my past.’
Once again, he’d twisted things to talk about himself. When I asked him when he could guide me around the fortress, he said,
‘They hung me for my thieving. And once I was dead, they sentenced my spirit to another century’s imprisonment in the hanging tree. Such torture, to be imprisoned with so many criminals. Spirits of the executed are not happy spirits, I can tell you. I prayed to my ancestors for deliverance. And my ancestors, whoever they are, replied with lightning. It felled the hanging tree. A mage herded my spirit into the branch I was hung from, cut the branch, and carved this staff from it.’
I didn’t know what to say to that.
‘And here I am,’ he said.
He continued talking about himself. And as he droned on and on, I wondered if he’d been dumped in the abandoned city because he talked so much.
Though I didn’t learn much about the fortress that day, I did learn that Shinytop didn’t like being swung about, hated being patted on the head, and had issues with Stein Cat.
‘That cat considers me no better than a scratching pole,’ he said. ‘As for her ghosts! Dumb shadows. Not worth bothering about.’
Considering yesterday’s argument with Number Seven, I didn’t believe this.
When Shinytop announced that we would explore the fortress tomorrow, and that today was best spent with me telling him about my world, I was happy to go along with it. At least it would give me the opportunity to talk.
And that, dear parents, is how I met Shinytop.
Guides are essential to world building.
While Shinytop is my primary guide, I also have Stein Cat’s ghosts, Ganhook, and numerous people and creatures to steer me through this world.
Guides are a fantastic way to compartmentalise your world building, and to avoid info dumps. Many guides can act as ‘behind the scenes guides’, that don’t even feature in the narrative you present to your audience. I’ll go into that in more detail in a future episode. For now, I’ll start with one primary guide.
Create a primary guide, a figure that will guide you (or your characters) through the basic aspects of your world.
In essence, you’re simply creating a character, with ‘guide’ characteristics.
When potential guide characters start popping up in your head, interview them the same way you’d interview a character during the character creation process. Ask specific questions. What they can do for you? How they can do it? Why they want to do it? And what’s in it for them?
What makes your guide different? What qualifies him her to give you information? And why would they tell you this information?
Also, how reliable are they, and how reliable is their knowledge?
Can you trust them?
When you arrive in a foreign country, do you trust the first Tom, Dick, or Harry that offers to show you around?
So, why would you trust the first guide that wants to explain things.
I trusted Shinytop because he immediately offered me treasure to help him escape his imprisonment while refusing point blank to help me escape Dunari. He immediately set ground rules as to his role.
I didn’t like hearing this. But I appreciated his honesty.
A great guide is like a great character.
And for a simple exercise, imagine yourself becoming a guide.
Bring your ‘peasant from the middle ages’ to the present day again. You may live in a five or six room house. It may also have a garden shed, some outhouses, a garage and such. Our peasant is likely only used to a one or two roomed shack.
To him, your house may resemble an intimidating palace. Now you don’t want to intimidate your new friend. Nor do you want him to bow and call you ‘Sir’ every time he speaks. You want to make him feel at home and gain his trust.
So, you need to guide him around your house and make him comfortable with everything. How would you do that? How can you explain the basics, like what the house is made of, what each room is for, how the house is heated, how the bathroom works, and so on.
Or take it a step farther. Create a little guidebook for your house in case some unexpected visitors arrive. An alien, perhaps. Or maybe the ghost of your great-great-grandmother shows up looking to reconnect with her family. How would you explain your modern home to her?
Of course, you don’t need to use your house. Anywhere will do. It’s just an exercise to help you think like a guide, which, in turn, will help you create good guides.
That’s it for now.
In the next episode, Shinytop ‘guides’ me around Ganhook’s compound, and I learn about making maps.
Until then, goodbye. Or, as we say in Dunari, ‘Dreavik!’